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Why Turkey will continue to remain a committed member of the Atlantic Alliance

Commentary, 29 September 2011
Europe, Middle East and North Africa
Throughout 2011, Turkish assertiveness in foreign policy has come to the fore, most recently in its dramatic diplomatic spat with Israel. This stance should not be mistaken for a re-orientation away from the Atlantic Alliance.

Throughout 2011, Turkish assertiveness in foreign policy has come to the fore, most recently in its dramatic diplomatic spat with Israel. This stance should not be mistaken for a re-orientation away from the Atlantic Alliance.

Tayyip Erdogan and Simon Peres c World Economic Forum

By Avnish Patel, Research Analyst, RUSI

As Turkey's relations with Israel continue to deteriorate, its foreign policy has come under scrutiny in the West. The diplomatic spat between the two countries led to a trenchant bipartisan letter being sent to the White House criticising Turkish policy and questioning its commitment to NATO.[1] In other quarters, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan is being accused of expressing a renascent 'neo-Ottomanism' as he re-aligns Turkey as a beacon for the Arab and Islamic world in the wake of the Arab Spring. The escalating hostile rhetoric towards Israel is indicative of a leader keen to shore up Islamist support domestically and to a wider regional audience.[2] This is coupled with on-going issues over Greek Cyprus and the decision to drill for oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean which has also caused consternation.

Yet Turkey is still an indispensible member of NATO and is still pragmatically robust against traditional Western enemies in the form of Iran and Syria.  If anything, Turkey's current posture must be seen in light of the increasing redundancy of the 'zero-problems' doctrine as espoused by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoðlu. Though it is unravelling, the policy itself and its subsequent evolution should be viewed as part of an overall objective of Turkey seeking to redefine itself amidst the state of flux in the Middle East. 

Regional Assertiveness

As one of only two predominantly Muslim members of NATO, economic growth and geopolitical developments have created an opportunity for Turkey to craft a more independent-minded foreign policy, detached from its Western partners in certain aspects. Internal dynamics have helped fashion this response. Firstly, Turkey has experienced an export boom in recent years, becoming the seventeenth largest economy in the world. The IMF has forecast Turkey's 2011 GDP at 6.6 per cent, though there are concerns whether this rapid growth can be sustained into 2012.[3]

Secondly, having won three successive elections, the dominance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also seen a transformation in civil society, in part fuelled by the slow progress of EU accession talks (which opened in 2005) and a significant dilution of the military's grip on the polity, previously seen as arbiters of the secular constitution. The recent Transatlantic Trends survey by the German Marshall Fund of the US records how 48 per cent of Turks wished their country to become a member of the EU, indicating a sanguine attitude compared to the high of 73 per cent in 2004.[4] Following the public trend to look eastwards, Prime Minister Erdoðan has used the inertia regarding EU membership to strengthen political and economic ties with regional neighbours.

Externally, Turkish foreign policy has been further emboldened by the drumbeat of the Arab Spring and Prime Minister Erdoðan is keen to foster an esprit de corps in the region, having recently visited Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to much acclaim. In return, he has called for these countries to emulate Turkey's system of governance (much to the chagrin of elements of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), whilst also seeking to capitalise on the economic and trade opportunities these countries represent.

These developments have coincided in a decline in relations with Israel stemming from the fallout of the Mavi Marmara incident and the outcome of the UN Palmer Report. Turkey has suspended military ties and downgraded diplomatic relations, threatened an increased naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and has been increasingly vocal regarding the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN. Deepening economic ties seem to have been shielded from this diplomatic spat, considering Turkey has bought 3 per cent of all Israel's exports in the year to August, worth $1.3bn. The Turkish leadership have also been keen to emphasise that the issue at hand is with the Israeli government rather than individuals or business.[5]

Such assertiveness has certainly generated concern amongst Western policymakers, yet Turkey still remains an integral part of the Western security architecture and we have yet to see more concrete examples of an Islamist re-alignment of Turkish foreign policy.

Previously, the Turkish government strove to foster good relations with Iran and Syria as part of its 'zero-problems' strategy. Now, it has earned the enmity of Iran by - amongst other reasons -  agreeing to host a radar system as part of a NATO Missile Defence system. And while the Iranian regime dubs this year's historic events as the 'Islamic Awakening', the Turkish government has offered a differing interpretation of the Arab Spring movement and supported the opposition to Iran's ally - Syria. Ankara has now fallen in step with US and Western allies to isolate the Syrian elite in the wake of the Assad regime's crackdown on its population. 

Undoubtedly, there is realpolitik at play: it's much vaunted 'zero-problems' policy with neighbours has unravelled as relations with Israel, Syria and Iran unravel. Amid these tensions, Turkey plays a significant role within a NATO Missile Defence system, which acts as a form of insurance, insulating it against Western criticism and allowing it to gain regional influence and in particular, criticise perceived Israeli obduracy over the Palestinian issue.

Turkish agreement to host radar as part of a NATO Missile Defence Architecture

NATO's missile defence capability, as endorsed at the 2010 Lisbon Summit, received further momentum recently with Turkey ready to host an early warning radar at a military installation in Kürecik, 435 miles west of the Iranian border.  The radar will be able to track at high altitudes, verify and target any ballistic missile trajectory over Turkish airspace and beyond, with the collated information being shared by NATO members via Command and Control at USAF Ramstein, Germany.  The deployment of the radar by the end of 2011 will see the implementation of the first phase of the US European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), with the intention to address short- and medium-range ballistic missile threats emanating from the Middle East. Southern Europe will be safeguarded by Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence ships equipped with SM-3 missiles patrolling the Mediterranean, the first of which, the USS Monterey, was deployed in March 2011.[6]

The decision to host the radar, being integral to the EPAA, politically reaffirms Turkey's commitment to NATO. In the post-Cold War security environment it is a hardnosed security decision, indicating that Turkey is firmly under the Alliance's security umbrella and forewarning those with hostile intentions towards it. In the talks preceding the declaration at the Lisbon Summit, Turkey campaigned that its regional neighbours (in particular Iran) not be named as a specific potential threat. There was an insistence on proclaiming the defensive nature of the Missile Defence system rather than explicitly antagonising any single country. Despite these positive intentions linked to the 'zero problems' foreign policy as espoused by Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Iranian fears have predictably not been assuaged. Whilst Turkey's positioning within the EPAA secures its position within NATO, clarification is required on the issue of data-sharing with Israel. Presently the US has remained coy on the subject and further risks inflaming the current impasse between Turkey and Israel. Transparency is required on the US intention to collate data from Turkish, Israeli and other radar sites to create a comprehensive picture of the missile threat.

Integral to the NATO Alliance

Turkey's soon-to-be active role in a NATO Missile Defence architecture is consistent with its approach to the Alliance's nuclear-sharing and deterrence policies, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities.[7] Turkey also hosts US tactical weapons, based at Incirlik Air Base, with the Turkish political and security elite viewing this as a symbol of Turkey's privileged status within NATO.

Seen then as a political as well as security weapon, it is seen to strengthen US commitments to transatlantic security in an uncertain strategic environment, whilst also adhering to the fair risk and burden sharing principles that underpin NATO's nuclear strategy.[8] Turkey has also shown a resolute commitment to ISAF operations in Afghanistan, with 1,840 troops currently deployed in non-combatant duties such as the training of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.[9] Turkey showed initial hesitancy to NATO intervention in Libya but has since played multiple roles, with Izmir airbase becoming a command and communications centre for air operations; sending four frigates and a submarine to enforce the arms embargo against Libya; and coordinating the international humanitarian aid effort via control of Benghazi Airport.[10]

All of these steps have helped to alleviate tensions between Turkey and US, made distinctly uneasy by the decision of the newly elected Turkish Parliament in 2003 to vote against authorising US troops to cross Turkish territory to enter into Iraq. Indeed President Obama labelled Turkey a resolute ally and a responsible partner in transatlantic and European institutions, backing its bid to become a member of the European Union. He suggests that it is uniquely placed due to an 'ability to be at the center of things. This is not where East and West divide - this is where they come together'.[11] It has also been suggested that the US place its drone surveillance craft within Turkey once US troops have been deployed out of Iraq.

There is much evidence, then, to point to the idea that Turkish foreign policy is very much aligned to the interests of the Atlantic Alliance. If anything, it's assertiveness in the Middle East should not only assist the Alliance but help bolster stability in the region. Yet, Turkey is adopting a risky and novel foreign policy posture and it could be at risk of overplaying its hand. Turkey should seek to maintain a posture of balance and moderation considering its unique position within NATO and also as a regional power reconciling religious principles with democratic norms, and ultimately drawing the sting from claims that its foreign policy has an Islamist agenda.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] 'Bipartisan Coalition Urges President to Launch a "Diplomatic Offensive" to Stop Turkey's Movement Towards Confrontation with Israel', Press Release from the Office of Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), 20 September 2011:

[2] Shaul Kimhi and Ely Karmon, 'What Makes Erdogan Tick?',, 23 September 2011

[3] Joe Parkinson, 'Turkey's Recovery on Shaky Ground?', The Wall Street Journal, 22 September 2011

[4] Ersin Kalaycýoðlu, 'Turkey's Views of the EU in 2011', 21 September 2011, p.1:

[5] Steve Bryant and Emre Peker, 'Turkey-Israel Business Boom Obscured in Erdogan Rant Against Trade Partner', Bloomberg, 22 September 2011:

[6] White House Factsheet: Implementing Missile Defense in Europe (15 September 2011)<>

[7] 'Active Engagement, Modern Defence. Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation', Adopted by the Heads of State and Government at the NATO Summit in Lisbon, 19-20 November 2010, Paragraph 17:

[8] Dr Mustafa Kibaroglu, 'Turkey, NATO and Nuclear Sharing: Prospects After NATO's Lisbon Summit' in Reducing the role of Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe: Perspectives and Proposals on the NATO Policy Debate - An Arms Control Association and British American Security Information Council Report (Edited by Paul Ingram and Oliver Meier), May 2011, pp. 31-39:

[9] ISAF/NATO Troop Contributions - Turkey:

[10] Burak Ege Bekdil and Umit Enginsoy, 'Turkey to have Triple Role in Libya Mission', Defense News, 29 March 2011:

[11] Remarks by President Obama to the Turkish Parliament, 6 April 2009

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